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Seas, oceans and cosmologies in Southeast Asia

  • Barbara Watson Andaya

This article discusses the changing spirit world of maritime communities in Southeast Asia by differentiating ‘oceans’ from ‘seas’ and by linking historical evidence to modern anthropological studies. Since the lives of seagoing peoples are fraught with unpredictability, propitiation of local sea spirits was a traditional means of ensuring good fortune and protection. As long-distance voyages expanded in the early modern period, the global reach of the world religions, extending beyond familiar seas into the more extensive ocean environment, held out particular appeal. Not only were the gods, deities and saints attached to larger religious systems themselves ocean travellers; in contrast to the unpredictability of indigenous spirits, they were always amenable to requests for help, even when the suppliant was far from home waters. At the same time, as world religions were incorporated into indigenous cosmologies, maritime peoples gained greater agency in negotiating relationships with the local spirits that still wield power in Southeast Asian seas.

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She is currently working on religious interactions in early modern Southeast Asia. She would like to thank the organisers of the conference for which this article was originally prepared: Professor Kim Byong-joon, Dean, College of Humanities and the faculty of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature, Seoul National University, and especially Dr Koh Keng We. She is also grateful to suggestions from the anonymous reader, which helped improve the article.

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2 Semple, Influences of geographic environment, pp. 244, 271, 294, 302.

3 Miller, Peter N., ‘The sea is the land's edge’, in The sea: Thalassography and historiography, ed. Miller, P.N. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), p. 10 . Less insistent on this distinction are the contributions in Connecting seas and connected ocean rims: Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and China Seas migrations from the 1830s to the 1930s, ed. Gabaccia, Donna R. and Hoerder, Dirk (Leiden: Brill, 2011). In this context, see Lewis, Martin, ‘Dividing the ocean sea’, Geographical Review 89, 2 (1999): 188214 .

4 For example, Cunliffe, Barry J., Facing the ocean: The Atlantic and its peoples, 8000 BC–AD 1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 565 ; Pearson, Michael N., ‘Littoral society: The concept and the problems’, Journal of World History 17, 4 (2006): 353–74.

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7 See further Horton, Robin, ‘African conversion’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 41, 2 (1971): 85108 .

8 Semple, Influences of geographic environment, p. 294. This article develops ideas in Andaya, Barbara Watson, ‘Rivers, oceans, and spirits: Gender and water cosmologies in Southeast Asia’, TRaNS: Trans -Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia 4, 2 (2016): 239–63.

9 McNiven, Ian J., ‘Saltwater people: Spiritscapes, maritime rituals and the archaeology of Australian indigenous seascapes’, World Archaeology 35, 3 (2003): 332 .

10 Ibid.: 329–49.

11 For example, Pannell, Sandra, ‘Of gods and monsters: Indigenous sea cosmologies, promiscuous geographies and the depths of local sovereignty’, in A world of water: Rain, rivers and seas in Southeast Asian histories, ed. Boomgaard, Peter (Leiden: KITLV, 2007), p. 85 ; Whitton, Tony, Soeriaatmadja, Roehayat Emon and Afiff, Suraya A., The ecology of Java and Bali (Hong Kong: Periplus, 1996), p. 673 .

12 Wieringa, E.P., Carita Bangka: Het verhaal van Bangka (Leiden: Vakgroep Talen en Culturen van Zuidoost-Azië en Oceanië, University of Leiden, 1990), pp. 52–3; see also Manguin, Pierre-Yves, ‘Shipshape societies: Boat symbolism and political systems in insular South-East Asia’, in Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th centuries, ed. Marr, David G. and Milner, Anthony C. (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies; RSPAS, Australian National University, 1984), pp. 187213 .

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19 Firth, ‘Faith and scepticism’, p. 211.

20 Zerner, ‘Sounding the Makassar Strait’, p. 65.

21 The literature is extensive, but see Cynthia Chou, ‘Research trends on Southeast Asian sea nomads’, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia 7, 2006, (last accessed 3 May 2017). Older but still useful overviews are Sopher, David E., The sea nomads: A study based on literature of the maritime boat people of Southeast Asia, Memoirs of the National Museum No. 5 (Singapore: National Museum, 1977 [1965]), p. 279 ff. and Polunin, Nicholas V.C., ‘Traditional marine practices in Indonesia and their bearing on conservation’, in Culture and conservation: The human dimension in environmental planning, ed. McNeely, Jeffrey A. and Pitt, David C. (New York: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 155–80.

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36 Skeat, Malay magic, pp. 279, 641.

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38 Zerner, ‘Sounding the Makassar Strait’, p. 74; Chou, The Orang Suku Laut of Riau, pp. 88–9; See further Andaya, ‘Rivers, oceans and spirits’, pp. 251–2.

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51 Nolde, Lance, ‘Great is our relationship with the sea: Charting the maritime realm of the Sama of Southeast Sulawesi’, Explorations 9 (2009): 1533 ; Zerner, ‘Sounding the Makassar Strait’, p. 68.

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69 See Kondo, Osamu, ‘Japan and the Indian Ocean at the time of the Mughal empire, with special reference to Gujarat’, in The Indian Ocean: Explorations in history, commerce and politics, ed. Chandra, Satish (New Delhi: Sage, 1987), p. 175 .

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76 Lombard-Salmon, ‘La communauté chinoise de Makasar’, p. 273.

77 Chandra, Moti, Trade and trade routes in ancient India (New Delhi: Abhinav, 1977), pp. 61–8, 144–5.

78 Once the Buddha was a monkey: Ārya Śūra's Jātakamālā, foreword by Doniger, Wendy, trans. Khoroche, Peter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 96102 .

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81 The poems of Hamzah Fansuri, Bibliotheca Indonesia 26, ed. and trans. Drewes, G.W.J. and Brakel, L.F. (Dordrecht: Foris, 1986), p. 83 .

82 Taçon, Paul S.C., May, Sally K., Fallon, Stewart J., Travers, Meg, Wesley, Daryl and Lamilami, Ronald, ‘A minimum age for early depictions of Southeast Asian praus in the rock art of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory’, Australian Archaeology 71 (2010): 110 .

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84 Coomaraswamy, Ananda K., ‘Khwāja Khadir and the fountain of life in the tradition of Persian and Mughal art’, in Coomaraswamy, A.K., ‘What is civilisation’ and other essays (Cambridge: Golgonooza Press, 1989), pp. 157–67; Suvorova, Anna, Muslim saints of South Asia: The eleventh to fifteenth centuries (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), p. 167 .

85 Hikayat Hang Tuah, ed. Ahmad, Kasim (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1971), pp. 342–3.

86 Sholikhin, Muhammad, Kanjeng Ratu Kidul dalam perspektif Islam Jawa (Jakarta: Penerbit Narasi, 2009), p. 178 ; Kasim, Razali, Syaifuddin, Wan and Harahap, Olivia, Kajian perbandingan kisah Puteri Hijau, Melayu Deli (Jakarta: Pusat Bahasa, Departemen Pendidikan Nasional, 2003).

87 Bang, Anne K., Sufis and scholars of the sea: Family networks in East Africa, 1860–1925 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p. 205 ; Suvorova, Muslim saints, pp. 10–11,

88 Bang, Sufis and scholars of the sea, p. 61.

89 Cited in Goldziher, Ignac, Muslim studies, ed. Stern, S.M. (Albany: SUNY Press, 1967), vol. 1, p. 284 .

90 Suvorova, Muslim saints, pp. 38, 166–7.

91 Sir Temple, Richard, ‘Buddermokan’, Journal of the Burma Research Society 15, 1 (1925): 133 ; Yegar, Moshe, The Muslims of Burma: A study of a minority group (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1972), p. 8 ; Khan, M. Siddiq, ‘Badr Maqams or the shrines of Badr Al-Din-Auliya’, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Pakistan 2, 1 (1962): 1746 ; Forster, Richard, ‘Magh marauders, Portuguese pirates, white elephants and Persian poets: Arakan and its Bay-of-Bengal connectivities in the early modern era’, Explorations 11, 1 (2011): 6380 ; Suvorova, Muslim saints, p. 169.

92 Suvorova, Muslim saints, p. 168.

93 Free mariner, ed. Bulley, Anne (Addlestone: British Association of Cemeteries in South Asia, 1992), pp. 8990 . A grave believed to be that of the sixteenth-century Sufi saint, Sultan al-Arifin, is on neighbouring Pulau Besar. Rozehnal, Robert, Islamic Sufism unbound: Politics and piety in twenty-first century Pakistan (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 201–2.

94 A similar dargah in Singapore on Telok Ayer Street, then close to the shore, dates from 1820. Amrith, Sunil S., Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The furies of nature and the fortunes of migrants (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 32–7, 89–91; Bayly, Susan, Saints, goddesses and kings: Muslims and Christians in South Indian society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 92–4; Yousof, Ghulam-Sarwar, Issues in traditional Malaysian culture (Singapore: Partridge, 2014), pp. 1821 ; Nasution, Khoo Salma, The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and place-making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque 1786–1957 (Penang: Areca, 2014), pp. 6770 .

95 Županov, Ines G., ‘The prophetic and the miraculous in Portuguese Asia: A hagiographical view of colonial culture’, in Sinners and saints: The successors of Vasco da Gama, ed. Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 139 ; Brockey, Liam, Journey to the East: The Jesuit mission to China, 1579–1724 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 237–8.

96 Rhodes of Vietnam, ed. Hertz, Solange (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1966), pp. 66 , 100.

97 British Sea-Captain Alexander Hamilton's A New Account of the East Indies, ed. Corfield, Justin and Morson, Ian (17th–18th century) (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon, 2001), p. 540 .

98 Andaya, Barbara Watson, ‘Christianity, religion and identity in a Muslim environment: Mother Mary, Queen of Larantuka, Indonesia’, in Attending to early modern women: Conflict and concord, ed. Nelson, Karen (Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 2013), pp. 135–52; Battad, Teodora T. et al. , Various religious beliefs and practices in the Philippines (Manila: Rex Bookstore, 2008), vol. 1, p. 83 .

99 Mercado, Monina A., Antipolo: A shrine to Our Lady (Manila: Craftnotes/Aletheia Foundation, 1980), p. 14 . See also Leong, Marya Rosenberg, ‘The Virgin of the breadfruit tree: The impact of early modern Marian art on Filipino women’, in Intercultural exchange in Southeast Asia: History and society in the early modern period, ed. Alberts, Tara and Irving, D.R.M (London: I.B. Taurus, 2013), pp. 118–43.

100 Mercado, Antipolo, p. 82; Foreman, John, The Philippine Islands (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1890), p. 146 .

101 Watson, James, ‘Standardizing the gods: The promotion of T'ien Hou (‘Empress of Heaven’) along the South China Coast, 960–1960’, in Popular culture in late imperial China, ed. Johnson, David, Andrew J. Nathan and Evelyn S. Rawski (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 294 .

102 Maspero, Henri, ‘The mythology of modern China’, in Hackin, Joseph et al. , Asiatic Mythology, trans. Atkinson, F.H. (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1968), p. 330 .

103 Watson, ‘Standardizing the gods’, pp. 299–300.

104 Antony, Like froth floating on the sea, pp. 157–61.

105 Ibid., p. 155.

106 Xing, Zhang and Sen, Tansen, ‘The Chinese in South Asia’, and Chee-Beng, Tan, ‘Tianhou and the Chinese diaspora’, in The Routledge handbook of the Chinese diaspora, ed. Chee-Beng, Tan (New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 206, 417430 .

107 Bulley, Free mariner, p. 133.

108 Fish, Shirley, The Manila–Acapulco galleons: The treasure ships of the Pacific: With an annotated list of the transpacific galleons 1565–1815 (London: AuthorHouse UK, 2011), pp. 263–4; Guevarra, Rudy P. Jr., ‘Filipinos in Nueva España: Filipino–Mexican relations, mestizaje, and identity in colonial and contemporary Mexico’, Journal of Asian American Studies 14, 3 (2011): 397 ; Arthur Policarpio, ‘The Guadalupe shrine: A tale of destruction, rebirth and war’, Totus Tuus, Maria; (last accessed 30 Dec. 2016).

109 Borschberg, Memoirs and memorials of Jacques de Coutre, pp. 161–3.

110 Intrepid itinerant: Manuel Godinho and his journey from India to Portugal in 1663, ed. Correia-Afonso, John, trans. Lobo, Vitalio and Correia-Afonso, John (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 32 .

111 Some even considered him to have been a shipwrecked Portuguese. Khan, ‘Badr Maqams’, p. 28.

112 Andrew Walker, ‘Upakhut in Malaysia’, New Mandala, 27 Jan. 2013; (last accessed 1 Sept. 2014); Strong, John S., The legend and cult of Upagupta: Sanskrit Buddhism in North India and Southeast Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 186–90, 344n2.

113 Penny, Benjamin, ‘An immigrant Chinese sea god in Australia: The Chinese background to Sydney's Retreat Street temple’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 2 (2008): 62 .

114 Colin, ‘Native races and their customs’, in The Philippine Islands, ed. Blair and Robertson, vol. 40, pp. 70–71; Kawada, Makito, ‘ Bayad sa dili naton kaipon: A Visayan ritual of offering to the spirits’, in Binisaya nga kinabuhi [Visayan life], ed. Ushijima, Iwao and Neri, Cynthia Zayas (Quezon City: University of the Philippines, 1996), pp. 213–40.

115 Wilkinson, R.J., Malay beliefs (London: Luzac and Co, 1906), p. 68 ; Skeat, W.W., ‘Some records of Malay magic by an eye-witness’, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 31 (July 1898): 28 . Tideways here refers to a channel in which a tidal current runs.

116 Skeat, Malay magic, pp. 316, 626. A similar threat by a Kelantan fisherman was recorded in Daud, Haron, Mantera Melayu: Analisis pemikiran (Penang: USM Press, 2001), pp. 42–3. ‘Hei, spirit of the sea … Do not prevent my good fortune/ If you do this you will be a traitor to Allah.’

117 Zerner, ‘Sounding the Makassar Strait’, pp. 65, 71–3.

118 Ibid., pp. 66–7. For a detailed account of Muslim interaction with sea spirits in 1939–40, see Firth, ‘Faith and scepticism’, pp. 190–242.

She is currently working on religious interactions in early modern Southeast Asia. She would like to thank the organisers of the conference for which this article was originally prepared: Professor Kim Byong-joon, Dean, College of Humanities and the faculty of the Department of Asian Languages and Literature, Seoul National University, and especially Dr Koh Keng We. She is also grateful to suggestions from the anonymous reader, which helped improve the article.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-4634
  • EISSN: 1474-0680
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-southeast-asian-studies
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